Caroline Ellis, a live-in nurse hired to care for stroke-patient Ben Devereaux, never believed in the supernatural. But Ben is not an ordinary patient and the isolated mansion on the banks of a New Orleans swamp, is not an ordinary home. It has a history of murder, magic and sacrifice. Caroline, scarred by her own father’s death, realizes that Ben´s stroke was not an accident. It is somehow connected to the room in the attic, somehow connected to hoodoo. Ben cries out for help and Caroline decides to uncover the sinister secrets of the house and save Ben from the horrors that hold him captive within.
British film director Ian Softley (K-PAX, The Skeleton Key, Inkheart) has always loved supernatural movies, movies where real world skeptical characters meets incidents that challenge rational beliefs. Without success he tried to get The Skeleton Key off the ground for seven years before it actually got made. The studios did not believe in the screenplay at all. But everything changed as movies like The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project proved the genre to be very much alive.
Award-winning horror screenwriter Ehren Kruger (The Ring, Blood´n Chocolate, The Skeleton Key) wrote a story that almost scene by scene, line by line, got transferred into the final film, into the final cut. The comparison, the similarities, between screenplay and movie are remarkable. The screenwriter’s vision made it, not only though the director of the movie, but through the decision makers in the studio system and through the trained eye of two-time Oscar winning picture editor Joe Hutshing (JFK, Born of the Fourth of July, Being John Malkovich). It is a well-crafted piece of art – well worth studying.
One interesting small difference between screenplay and movie is that Caroline had an ex-boyfriend in the script, appearing in the scene in the New Orleans bar, and mentioned a few times during the course of the movie. This was unnecessary back-story, not integrated. Taking it out was a good choice by the director.
The movie, called “one of the most enjoyable inane movies of the season” (New York Times), “tightly plotted and suspenseful enough to keep you guessing until the satisfying, unexpected end, which is worth suspending disbelief for.” (Los Angeles Time), made close to $48.000.000, which earns a place in the top-20 most successful supernatural horror movies ever (US. Box office).
• A Fascinating Opening.
Caroline reads a wonderful passage from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island as her patient, an old man, passes away. The audience has yet no idea of where the story is going, but the beautifully written words create magic. They call for attention and slowly pull you out of your reality into the world of the story.
The convention in horror screenwriting is to introduce death by an attack of the antagonist in the first scene (Jaws, Scream, Halloween, Hellraiser, and many many more) and The Skeleton Key too introduces death, but in a more interesting way. It manages to introduce the protagonist, her personality, her motivations and needs that are crucial to the story. And it creates empathy. The opening is rooted in a very naturalistic environment with real people.
• Problem / Need.
How do you motivate your protagonist to stay in a house where you are threatened by evil forces? Caroline could just leave the Devereaux mansion if she wants to. But there is one thing that makes her stay. Ben. And the sense of connection Caroline feels is integrated from the opening frame of the movie. In the first scene we learn that nobody, nobody except Caroline, cares for the dying man in the opening. “It’s supposed to be a business about caring. They couldn’t care less.” she says.
Then you have the brilliant back-story of Caroline’s dead father. She feels guilt over not being there when her father passed away. Guilt is the powerful motivator that we all understand.
Your parents still living?
Oh? Must have been young.
My father died last year — of cancer.
He raised me.
Oh my. So you cared for him as well?
I would’ve. If I’d known how little time we
Even Jill, Caroline’s best friend, points out that Caroline may be caring to much, that Ben is not Caroline’s father.
Her motivation is integrated from the very first scene of the movie all the way until the end when she asks Luke to get the photograph of her dead father when he threatens her with a shotgun.
• The Skeptic Protagonist.
Caroline is a skeptic and that alone, since it is the starting point of most people in the audience, make her easy to identify with. She is also the one person we follow throughout all the scenes in the entire movie. Writing from a single person point of view is hard. You can never reveal anything by cutting to another character. And if you have a boring protagonist, you are in deep trouble. The advantage is that as the audience learns everything at the same time as our hero – it creates powerful identification and empathy.
Kruger beautifully breaks down Caroline’s defenses of skepticism one by one, introducing the hoodoo room, the ghosts in the mirrors, introducing the community that practices magic. And when Caroline sees that her own ritual to make Ben talk actually works, when she learns that her best friend Jill believes in hoodoo, that the former caretaker warns her, that the magic brick dust really do keep enemies out, she has a hard time not to believe what she witnesses. And so the audience follows along into the world where anything can happen – making it possible for the filmmakers to create fear. Show the rules of the world you create and there can be no resistance.
• The Allied Opponent.
Who are we most afraid of betraying us? Who would hurt us the most? And where do we least expect it? From our friends, our families, from our allies. This technique has been applied since the dawn of storytelling and connects deep into what we fear in life. Skeleton Key creates a safe place where Caroline can go when she finally escapes the mansion. She goes to Luke, the lawyer who insisted on her taking the job in the first place (and we never consider why she didn´t go to the police or her best friend who already do believe in magic). Caroline and Luke have become friends. But when he betrays her, he brings her back to the old house by the swamp, which is the worst thing that could happen. It’s very effective.
• Great Storytelling Rhetoric.
“You won’t believe me…” says Violet as she tells the story of the two murdered servants and the ghosts in the house. This phrase may seem insignificant, but it’s really more powerful than the story she is telling. This is a classic technique of persuasion. By telling someone what they won’t or can’t, you often get the opposite reaction. Nobody wants to be told what his or her actions and reactions will be. We do not want to be predictable. We want to have the freedom of choice. So when Violet says “You won’t believe it…” Caroline and the audience thinks “Don’t tell me what to believe or not! I will believe whatever I want… ” and we open up for the possibility of the story being true, for the possibility of believing. Remember, we have already seen the stacked mirrors in the attic. The same technique of rhetoric is then used again. “Now you will leave. Like all the rest…”, says Violet. And she thereby creates the opposite reaction.
• Red Herrings – Twist´n Turns.
Skeleton Key uses expectations and revelations to create the emotional thrill ride. First making us believe that there are ghosts in the mirrors; that’s why they are all put away in the attic; that is why Ben reacts with total fear and agony when he looks into Caroline’s pocket mirror. The truth is, as you might know, something completely different.
Then we get to know hoodoo, something new, something unfamiliar, and that the Conjure of Sacrifice is a spell that will keep you from dying. “You have to sacrifice a person and take the years that they have left”, says the old bayou woman. Violet is going to sacrifice Ben. It is the first thing that seems logical, right? What else could it be? A lesser screenwriter than Ehren Kruger might have gone with that idea. Seems good enough, right? But Kruger knows that the audiences are usually ahead of the story, they try to anticipate what is coming – so he sets this up and uses it to his advantage to create the memorable ending of the story. (Kruger also does this in “The Ring”, where Rachel first believes the videotape to be, as most people would have in the same situation, a message from the dead stepmother of Samara. A red herring. He then uses it again when Rachel believes that finding the girl broke the curse. Great twist ending.) In Skeleton Key, as we approach the climax, Caroline realizes that Ben is not the sacrifice. She is. Then, a final twist, the big revelation that changes everything. Caroline is tricked into a ritual and the souls of Caroline and Violet trade bodies. Caroline, the caregiver, trapped inside the old woman’s body. Violet takes the years Caroline’s body has left. A Plot of Revelation.
• Plot of Revelation.
The Plot of Revelation, using one of Norman Friedman’s brilliant story structures, is one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences a reader or an audience can have. Basically it’s a major revelation revealed in the very climax that changes everything. Just think of successes like The Sixth Sense, Angel Heart, and The Others. Imagine if these stories ended without that final twist and you easily see the power of it. A Plot’s of Revelation is one of the trickiest structures to master, since you cannot just create twist at the stories climax. The key is to integrate it in the story – all the way though, you have to give the audience time to realize, realizing at the same time as the protagonist, the implications of what is happening. That moment of slow realization can make a horror writer’s career. (Again, imagine Bruce Willis telling us he is dead in The Sixth Sense instead of us learning it, understanding it with him.)
Skeleton Key is a well-integrated story and does not reveal the secrets until they have the most effect.